If you have been fortunate the past few weeks, you will have missed the news that New Yorker legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin, was suspended for being caught masturbating during a Zoom meeting. This caused quite a stir, including the inevitable backlash of “stop being so prudish, everybody masterbates, get over it!” nonsense epitomized by essays like this little testimony to male privilege right here. (Where, naturally, we can just put aside Toobin’s history of bad conduct. No, actually, friend, we can’t.
Toobin was fired, leading inevitably to the comments about cancel culture, and honestly if people had the same level of angst about right-to-work laws as they do about whether Toobin’s firing, the world would be a better place. People are in general right in that we should stop being collectively shocked about masturbation, but I don’t think anybody in the collective is actually shocked by masturbation. I think a lot of us are instead shocked at Toobin’s judgment in a world where people are fired and/or treated like garbage professionally for much, much less.
To wit, everybody masterbates, but it’s not good professional conduct. Nobody really wants to watch Toobin do his thing, just like everybody poops, and absolutely nobody wants a to watch you do it.
What we have here around Toobin, more than any real prudery-busting, is what Kate Manne called “himpathy” in her wonderful book, Down Girl. Himpathy is the process society uses to make excuses for men’s bad conduct. The problem with himpathy is that it’s a built-in safety net for men that is simply not applied to rest of us. Imagine if Michelle Obama had been caught masturbating during a Zoom. The result is that men remain less accountable for their bad conduct, while the rest of us, particularly women and Black people, get punished again and again and again for our mistakes with no mercy at all.
A further example may help illustrate. Once, when I was a young consultant, I wore green tights to a client meeting. OMG! My dusty old white boy dinosaur boss said he when he saw what was an objectively cute outfit with green tights. THAT is SO unprofessional, we’ll stop on the way and get you PROPER NYLONS , but alas, Other Moldy Dude was 20 minutes late meeting us so that we could arrive to the meeting as a group (something Dinosaur insisted on, largely so that he could control our interactions with the clients lest they get to thinking (rightly) that Dinosaur didn’t in fact know how to do all the technical stuff he was charging his gigantic salary to them for “managing” us as we actually do the work they needed.)
So because Dude was 20 minutes late, we couldn’t stop to get pantyhose to correct my OUTRAGEOUS professional lapse of my green tights. It was a disaster before the meeting even started. My luck being what it is, the clients were really unhappy with the project—not my part of it, but various different parts, including that of the Dude who had been 20 minutes late. As we rode back in car together, I was roundly blamed for the disaster of the meeting. The clients, undoubtedly seeing my green tights, had taken us for “kids” and “amateurs” instead of the SURIOUS EXPERTS we were, and it was all my fault for not looking “professional” that day. (Keep in mind: I was a wearing knee-length skirt, a blazer, a shirt, and a scarf in addition to the INSUBORDINATE tights.)
The deal is this: nobody but my dinosaur of a boss was likely looking at my legs or if they had, they probably thought “huh, tights. Smart. It’s February in Chicago, after all.” The Dude was responsible for making us late; The Dinosaur was responsible for demanding we all show up together and for demanding we do so that we could brief him on the way so that he could take credit for our work. The Dude was responsible for the work they didn’t like; the Dinosaur, as the “manager” was supposed to be “managing” the Dude to what the client wanted. NONE of ANY of that, supposedly, made us unprofessional, except that, of course, it did.
Instead, it was the green tights, the tights that granted a hint of individuality to me in a world where pantyhose were the done thing.
When my yearly performance assessment came up SEVERAL MONTHS LATER the green tights came up AGAIN “you need be more aware of your professional appearance.” Professional dress is about making people spend money and controlling them, and it’s especially controlling and punishing to women of color whose bodies do not conform to white expectations. I feel a great deal of empathy for this. I can’t tell you how often, as a busty woman, my Dinosaur of a boss stared and glared if button went wonky or my shirt shifted so that a bit cleave showed. I LITERALLY CAN NOT HELP THAT BUTTONS AND SHIRTS shift.
So you will need forgive all of us women whom have been bludgeoned for years and years and years for our “failures to be profesh” if we don’t think Toobin merits all the grace in the world. You see, at the same time that people are lecturing us on how we simply mustn’t, mustn’t be judgey about Toobin and his needs, we are still being subjected to horsepoop from the WSJ (not linking; they can get their own damn clicks) lecturing us on how it’s not longer “cute” when children and pets interrupt Zoom, and now professional conduct demands children be put away. One wonders what those without live-in help do: it’s generally frowned upon to handcuff children to the water heater in the basement to preserve one’s professional image, but I dunno we wouldn’t wanna be unprofessional. Rolls eyes.
Look, women are already working themselves to death during the pandemic. They are doing the best they can to keep kids/dogs from interrupting your precious PowerPoint presentation that nobody is listening to anyway. Telling us we need “understand” some old guy’s showing his junk while granting us NO allowances for the same natural, meaningful homelike interruptions is gaslighting a major scale.